It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.

What the hell is a Scalawag?

Chances are, the shrimp you recently ate at a restaurant—or from your box of Cinnamon Toast crunch— weren't caught in domestic waters, much less the Gulf of Mexico next door. That's right–those golden fried shrimp speckled into between the lumps of fried flounder and stuffed crab shells on your plate, none of it came from the ocean just a few miles down the road. 

It came from Asia, or South America. It was farm-raised, and it's beating out local competition. 

It's a problem that's been plaguing the Gulf Coast commercial fishing industry for decades now. Whereas once it was easier to make a living as a fisher-person, these days, as the high tide of operation costs increase and the price for foreign-raised seafood decreases, it's becoming increasingly difficult for saltwater heritage harvesters' to break even at each year's end. 

Now, Louisiana's commercial fishing and shrimping industry is in jeopardy. Again. In 2019, the industry was suffering as a result of a record-amount of spillway openings, forcing a deluge of freshwater into the salty Mississippi Sound, where smaller vessels are able to navigate. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down restaurants across the nation, where somewhere between 80 to 85 percent of domestically landed seafood is consumed. Now, a diversion project meant to help restore some of the roughly 2,000 square acres of land lost threatens their industry. 

That's why I thought it was as good a week as ever to reach out to Acy Cooper, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. As he always is, Cooper has been at the forefront of dissenting fishermen. This time, he's hoping to find some type of middleground to work from, as the state plans to move forward with its $2 billion Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project, the latest piece of the state's monumental 50-year, $50 billion plan to save its disappearing coast. 

Drawing from my conversation this week, we're also cooking up another rendition of "BBQ" shrimp. If that sounds tasty to you, read through the interview and catch the recipe below. 

More in Scalawag from the South's fisherfolk: The fishkill on Georgia's Ogeechee River, Jim Abbot


XP: I know it's been a pretty difficult year for commercial fisher-folk across the Gulf Coast. How would you describe the state of Louisiana's commercial fishing and shrimping industry?

AC: We're surviving, but we have a lot of issues coming at us right now–the mid-Barataria diversion, and quite a few other issues. 

XP: I know it. Hurricane season's right around the corner, once again. How are y'all still bouncing back from a very active hurricane season in the Gulf Coast last year?

AC: You see, that's another thing. Last year, we had seven hurricanes. We had to pick up and leave. [We're] losing a big part of our income. Thank god it didn't hit in our area; it went to the west in the same place, and I feel for those poor people because they've lost just about everything. We just have to be prepared for whenever we see it coming and try to save what we can, and that's all we can do. We're gonna have to take that chance one way or another. 

XP: Financially, are y'all still feeling the impacts of the COVID-19 shutdown last year?

AC: Oh, yeah, no doubt, because 85 percent of our seafood goes to restaurants. So, when the restaurants are closed, our food service is shutdown. We take a big lick on that. It really hits us hard. It takes a big chunk out of our money. 

XP: Are you seeing more shrimpers leave the industry lately, given the circumstances?

AC: Slowly but surely. Some of them are gonna get jobs. They get their license and they go on to something else. But that's the downfall of not making money. We bring in 1.6 billion pounds of shrimp and only consume 1.2 billion pounds. [Adding to that problem], the shit coming [from foreign markets] is all packed with antibiotics and steroids. They're not healthy. There's just a lot of things in them. We're just trying to get everybody to realize that fresh shrimp is the way to go. Imports are killing us. We have a lot of issues that we have to deal with right now. 

(See also: Fishin' & pickin' with Larry Keel, in Scalawag)

XP: As the pandemic has forced folks to think more about where their food comes from, are you seeing much of the same side effect on how consumers are approaching fresh seafood?

AC: You have to make them aware of it. When you go into a restaurant and you order a shrimp po boy, you don't know where that shrimp's coming from. A lot of times, if you're not aware of what we're trying to tell you about the antibiotics and steroids in the seafood coming from foreign countries, you really don't even know. We try to put it out there and tell everybody: You need to know what you're eating. We passed some legislation two years ago that makes restaurants put on the menu whether your seafood is imported or domestic. They have to put a sign by the door and they have to have it on the menu. But a lot of them are not abiding by it right now, and we can't force the issue because most of foodservice is shutdown. 

XP: I'm glad you brought up Louisiana's labeling law. Due to COVID-19, I guess there's been no way to tell just how effective the implementation of the law has been among restaurants. 

AC: Not a whole lot, because I still see restaurants that haven't done it yet. We don't really want to push the issue because we don't want to be the bad guys and kick them when they're down. Once they get back up and running and everything's back to normal, we're gonna start pushing the issue again on that. You've got to be careful of what you're eating. Eighty-five percent of restaurants sell imported shrimp. You have little chance of getting our shrimp at a restaurant

XP: Could you tell me a little bit more about the mid-Barataria project? I don't think my readers understand what that would potentially mean for the commercial fishing industry's future. 

AC: What it means for us is putting freshwater in a basin. It's normally saltwater, and if you add fresh water into the basin, then our shrimp, fish, crabs, everything, is going to move on. They're not going to stay there.

So, with them trying to put this much freshwater in there, our Barataria Basin isn't going to have any brown shrimp at all. Maybe white shrimp will come back if the [Mississippi River] stays low enough to where it doesn't steady dump freshwater up in there [driving down salinity levels for saltwater species], but hey plan on leaving it open continuously. That's a big issue. If you add freshwater into a saltwater marsh, the saltwater species leave. They don't stay. 

XP: I saw the state of Louisiana is discussing a little more than $300 million in mitigation money for commercial fisher-folk who might suffer the consequences of the infrastructure project. Granted, the project is intended to help rebuild land that's been lost in recent years, but what does that kind of money mean for y'all? Is it beneficial at all or just a drop in the bucket? 

AC: That's a drop in the bucket. They tried to say, well, they're gonna give us ice boxes and money and move off. But let me tell you, we can't move off. A lot of the fishermen have smaller vessels that just don't go offshore, and there's a difference between fishing the basin and going offshore. Most of the guys that worked inside [the basin] can't move on [to fish another site.] Their boats aren't big enough to put ice boxes or whatever else they want to help us with. 

$300 million is a drop in the bucket when you start looking at the oyster, the crab, the shrimp. It's not really much. Just shrimp alone is a billion-dollar industry. It used to be about $2.4 billion, and then it went down to $1.3 billion. So, $300 million across all the industry–[oyster, crab, shrimp, et cetera]–isn't going to be enough. 

XP: From a fisherman's perspective, what can be done to prevent it? Anything at all? 

AC: Well, we want to file suit on them. I think we're gonna, eventually, but we have to wait until [the state gets] the permits to do so. We have a couple of different organizations in on [the potential suit]–Louisiana Shrimp Association, which I'm a part of. I think the lieutenant governor is on our side. I just got through speaking to him and we're gonna put a meeting together so we can discuss options. 

XP: Given those issues facing the industry, what do y'all need most at the moment? 

AC: We just need to get our prices back to where they should be, because we are working for less money than we did back in the 1980s. Everything has done went up–our motors and equipment is sky high. We used to pay $10,000 to $12,000 for a motor; now we're paying $40,000, $50,000 for the same engine. We need to get back to where we can make money in the industry and get the industry on the right track. We're big for the state of Louisiana because we're 10 percent of the state's revenue. That adds up to be a lot. That's the main thing, getting us back to where we can make money and survive. It's hard to keep deck hands. It's hard to keep people working for you when you go out there and you don't make a whole lot of money, earning pennies on the dollar. I can understand [folks who leave the industry's] point of view, especially if they got a family and they come work for you. You have to make enough to keep that household going. Sometimes we just can't do it because of the price.

XP: That's worth a whole lot more than $300 million in mitigation money, for sure. 

AC: That's a drop in the bucket.

Food from the Gulf Coast, with a side of storytelling.

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Xander Peters

Xander Peters is a freelance writer living in New Orleans. His work appeared in Rolling Stone, Reason, and Earther, among others.